“We’re Going to Free Palestine, and We’re Going to Free the World Too:” Inside the City College Encampment 

In an interview for The Activist, Oren Schweitzer talks to Jo von Maack, a key organizer of the Gaza solidarity encampment at City College, about building grassroots support for Palestinian liberation.

This past Thursday, April 25, students in the City University of New York (CUNY) system launched a Gaza solidarity encampment on the campus of City College in upper Manhattan. The Activist spoke to a YDSA organizer and leader in the encampment, Jo von Maack about the past few days, why CUNY students are building this encampment, and the fight to free Palestine. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Oren Schweitzer: Why made you decide to put on an encampment? How did you get involved?

Jo von Maack: I’ve been outraged at what’s been happening in Palestine for a while. With everything that happened after October 7 and the fact that America and the world turned, like, such a blind eye to genocide, it enraged me. Ever since, I shifted from initially doing organizing for free college, which is usually my bread and butter, to Palestinian organizing.

I felt like we needed to escalate. We were giving demands to our college president and they weren’t being met. We were doing rallies, we were doing actions, and they were falling on deaf ears. After I saw what Columbia University was doing with the encampment, I felt inspired.

I texted some people from the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance at my school and I said, we have to do this. I got it added into a group chat and the rest is history.  

OS: What are your demands?

JvM: We have a variety of demands that relate CUNY divesting from Israel and being transparent with its funding.

We also have demands that aren’t necessarily related to Palestine. We just want to get the police and the IDF off of our campuses. Our final demand is actually to make CUNY free because it used to be free up until about 50 years ago, and ensuring that our professors and staff get a good contract.

These demands we framed under Palestinian liberation, but also our liberation. We believe that we can’t just tackle all these issues separately. We have to synthesize them together because they’re all connected because of capitalism.

OS: Can you explain a little more about the connection between the different demands? There’s divestment and disclosure, which are related to the ongoing genocide in Palestine right now and the university’s complicity, but there are demands related to making CUNY a place [where] working class students and also workers can thrive.

JvM: It’s essentially the fact that CUNY, and not just CUNY, but universities everywhere, they’re spending money towards a genocide towards Palestinians. Instead that money could actually go to us. It can make our lives better. So it’s just a matter of rerouting the money into the right place.  

OS: How does the demand about cops off campus relate to Israel and the IDF?

JvM: There’s a few connections. The IOF actually trains the NYPD, so a lot of the tactics that the NYPD [uses], some of [which]…they use on us, the IOF also uses. 

OS: You just called the IDF the IOF, could you explain what that means?

JvM: IDF stands for Israeli Defensive Forces, but defensive implies that they are the ones being attacked, but they’re really the Israeli Offensive Forces, because they’re the ones doing the attacking. They’re attacking innocent Palestinians, and then they’re trying to frame themselves as being defensive. How can it be defensive when you’re attacking innocent men, women, and children?  

OS: You said that the IOF trains NYPD and they’re using some of those tactics against you guys. What has the cop presence been like on the campus so far? What has the relationship been with the police, with threats from the university? 

JvM: As of now, the police are not present on our campus because the president is holding back from calling them in. However, we’ve had the police try and intimidate us. They’ve driven by with corrections buses. We’ve seen tweets on the internet that talk about how we need to be expelled.

The security here on campus aren’t NYPD, but they kind of act like NYPD.They locked all the buildings, so we aren’t able to use the restrooms here. They’re trying to gate up a lot of the exits so that it’ll be difficult for us to travel around. They’re just trying to make our lives difficult here while we’re trying to protest a genocide.

OS: I know that day one, a few security officers came into the encampment. What did they try to do and what was the response? 

JvM: We were told earlier that Chancellor Matos [Rodríguez] didn’t like that the tents were up, and didn’t like that the Palestinian flag was hanging on the flagpole in the middle of our encampment. So they came to the center of the encampment, and they were trying to either take down the tent or go for the flag first, I’m not particularly sure.

But there were so many of us. We kind of rushed them and pushed them out into another exit in the encampment. They ended up leaving and backing off and they have not been back since.

OS: I know also that you mentioned the chancellor is not happy about the Palestinian flag that you put up flying right under the American flag in the center of campus. They recently tried to demand that you take it down. What was the deal that they offered, how did you respond, and what ended up happening? 

JvM: They locked down all the buildings the first day to anyone that didn’t go to City College. City College is one of the CUNY campuses. CUNY policy states that as long as you’re a CUNY student, you can enter any of the campuses. The second day, they didn’t even allow City College students in, so as a result, we weren’t able to use the restrooms here.

When negotiations happened yesterday, they didn’t negotiate on any of the demands at all. They just said if we take down the Palestinian flag, they wouldn’t unlock the buildings or the restrooms for us. They would just give us porta-potties.

We felt that that was a complete insult because they went out of their way to give us a more inconvenient option in exchange for taking down the flag. We refused to take down the flag. This flag means so much to us and we felt compromising that for the bathrooms would be ridiculous.

We refused to take down the flag and ended up doing a media campaign with some graphics and some Twitter posts.This morning, City College brought in porta-potties for us, and the flag is still flying. We didn’t give in, and we still got the porta-potties.

OS: Can you tell me a bit more about your theory of change? Oftentimes, there are two kinds of general orientations of activists. One, what I would describe as more militant, radical actions by small groups of people; another one is more about working within the system, trying to make deals and gain concessions. This seems like it’s neither of those things. I would describe what’s happening here as a mass action of large groups of students rallying around collective demands and engaging in militant action, but not a militant action that is only really reserved or accessible to a small group of radicals. Is my read of this accurate?

JvM: Your read is definitely right. This is like a mass movement of, I wouldn’t just say students, but also faculty, staff and alumni that came out here. I think that this is the most powerful theory of change just because it outnumbers. It outnumbers the police, it outnumbers the people in power, and as a result of having many people all in agreement to do an action, it shifts the power dynamic back onto us.

I don’t think working in the system is effective. We reject the idea of having elected officials come over here and give speeches. We also reject the idea that this action can only happen with a few selective individuals. We believe in collective action, and collective action is what’s going to lead to collective liberation. 

OS: You mentioned that faculty and staff and alumni are here. What is the importance of that kind of solidarity and those relationships with faculty and the participation of faculty and workers, not just students?

JvM: We help each other. The professors and staff, they advocate for our rights as students. We advocate for their rights as professors and staff. If students would skip class to go to the encampment, the professors could write excusal notes or they could maybe even host classes over here. The students can fight for them to have better pay. 

If we want to win, we can’t just focus on one group. We need to get everyone together. We need to connect all our issues and all our struggles. We can help liberate each other. 

OS: Is there any power that campus workers have that students don’t have that can maybe augment the power of this encampment?

JvM: There can be. We got inspired by the 1969 student action in which students also took over the school. Their demands were related to racial equity and open admissions. The reason why they were pretty successful was because the security guards refused to cooperate with the administration.

They actually helped the students out. They didn’t kick them out. They helped bring in resources. They were actually the runners and they were facilitating, sneaking in resources…. They would probably be able to open the campuses for us to use the bathrooms and the showers and whatnot.

We wish that they would be on our side, but unfortunately that’s not the case. I’ve spoken to some of them and I said, listen, if all of you guys were to back each other up, we’d back you guys up as well. Unfortunately, they’re not on our side, but who knows? Maybe something can change.

OS: The first day, the faculty set up a picket around the area where it was thought that cops would come through. What’s the thinking behind setting up that faculty picket?

JvM: The idea is that the security and maybe even police would have a harder time…touch[ing] and seiz[ing] and arrest[ing] professors compared to students. Just the fact that they’re willing to put their lives on the line for us is so touching because they are at risk, maybe not as much risk in some instances, but they still are. But to show that they have solidarity with us, I think that’s just beautiful to see.  

OS: In 40 minutes or so, there’s going to be a general assembly in the camp. Have you done any of these before? What’s the idea behind this?

JvM: We’re in the third day of our encampment right now. The main reason why we want to have this general assembly is to ensure that everyone is involved and to create a democratic structure. We kind of kept everything closed off initially, but we just because we spent a week keeping the secret. We were very scared that Zionists were going to find out and destroy the action. 

But right now, since this action is public, we feel it’s important for other people to get involved and have a say in the encampment and things like strategy and tactics and supplies and materials and social media and stuff like that. Additionally, it takes away a lot of the burden from the organizers.

For example, I run social media comms and a little bit of press and it has been a lot for me. So. I’m looking forward to getting other people involved, not only to take off the burden, but also…it’s important that everyone here feels like they’re contributing towards growing and making the space better. And as a result, you kind of get that emotional attachment to it. You want it to succeed. And in turn, that makes it more likely to succeed.  

OS: Have you all been coordinating with the other encampments in New York City?

JvM: Between the whole CUNY system and other schools, we have been coordinating with each other. We have received a lot of resources and a lot of supplies. When we put out an ask for something on Instagram, we get so much of it that we have an extreme surplus. We’ve been contacting Columbia, NYU, FIT, and The New School. We kind of figure out what we have an excess of and what we need, and we trade off with each other.

With CUNY students, we just want to keep the encampment solely at City College for the sake of concentrating all the students into one school and having a more effective action versus spreading it out and having less people and less impactful actions. 

We’re kind of hoping that as we’re building these connections we can build towards a bigger action, because unfortunately with things like this, you can’t stay the same, you either de-escalate or escalate, and we’re not de-escalating. 

OS: Are you thinking about joint actions across different campuses and across different encampments? 

JvM: Absolutely…Minouche Shafik isn’t my enemy and Chancellor Matos [Rodríguez] maybe isn’t Columbia’s enemy, but there are people in power who are behind Shafik and behind Matos and behind all these other presidents. That’s probably why they aren’t caving into our demands, so we have to go to who they’re answering to and put pressure on them.  

OS: You’re a member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America in addition to being an organizer of this encampment. Could you tell me about the role YDSA has played in your own organizing and how it relates to the broader encampment movement?

JvM: I see YDSA as the first step towards radicalizing people. It was definitely the first step for me. …YDSA was the first group I joined, a year ago. It really taught me about socialism and theories of change and what a mass movement can really do. I feel like it’s the catalyst, like the first step pushing towards a movement. You get students at college age and radicalize them. And then they take these skills into the workplace and they can grow a movement from there. 

As a result of me being in YDSA, I think about things like democracy and wanting everyone to have a say in things. I also think about certain strategies like not thinking so much on impulse and trying to think strategically about how to get your demands heard. …I’m able to synthesize and be aware that capitalism is the root of all of these issues.

It’s the reason why American politicians are able to turn away and ignore the fact that Palestinian children are being murdered because they make money off of it. Having this awareness that capitalism is the root of all of this evil allows me to frame these issues in a certain way and it allows me to organize towards ending capitalism, not just liberating Palestine. 

OS: You are risking a lot doing this. There have been students at other schools that have been arrested, some universities have deployed tear gas, there are videos coming out of Boston, cleaning up an alleyway where there was blood from the brutality that the police imposed on those students. It’s really scary, and I think that a lot of people can be scared to take action. Why are you here despite the risks?

JvM: This is the right thing to do. There’s just so much evil going on in this world right now. I think you have to stand up for what’s right and stand up for those who can’t defend themselves. 

There are fears. I’m still kind of worried sometimes about what could possibly happen. I still think about threats of the National Guard. But if we all stand together united, they can’t stop all of us. And the more of us that are here, the stronger we will be, the more of a shift in power dynamic will occur, and the more likely it is that we will win. 

So it doesn’t matter, all those things. They don’t really scare me. I know that I’m not doing this alone. I’m backed by so many people. I look at this encampment and we’re all united together. So it doesn’t matter what they try to do. We’re going to keep pushing at it and we’re going to free Palestine and we’re going to free the world too.